Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Tale of two Churches

Sunday Mornings in the London suburbs during the 1930s

In 1928, our family moved to 13 Coniston Gardens, located in the new housing estates off Woodford Avenue, which was part of London’s North Circular arterial highway.  Here the neighbourhood children could enjoy a pleasant sub-suburban recreational environment.  This because though on the fringes of one of the largest cities on earth, we were also on the fringes of green and semi-wild spaces. 
This part of north Ilford bordered on Woodford and Wanstead, then Conservative boroughs once noted for being the parliamentary constituency of Winston Churchill.  This was the newer part of Ilford, built up after the the First World War, and was mainly a suburban dormitory area for people who travelled up to the City of London to their work and businesses each day.  Living here and being three miles from SS Peter & Paul’s School meant that I also had a daily commute and took a penny ride, at first on the double-deckers belonging to the old Pirate and General private bus companies and later on those of the  London Passenger Transport Board.  Our school was in the older part of the borough, midway along Ilford High Road, between Ilford Broadway and Seven Kings. 
Of course there were several newer, more local schools, which most of my friends attended, but my mother was a Catholic and so I and some of my siblings were destined for mandatory indoctrination into the mysticism of Rome.  
However, because my father was an indeterminate non-practising Protestant, we thankfully had a fairly relaxed religious home life, apart from the bother of having to trudge churchward each Sunday. 
  But even this was lightened by my usually going with my older brother, to the very late mass at the new modernistic church in Wanstead, where the large number of fine motor cars shiny and sparkling in the parking lot bespoke the affluence of so many of the faithful.
Inside the Wanstead church, from high up in his fashionable and contemporary light-oak pulpit, pink, clean-shaven, pragmatic, somewhat portly Father Booker, looking as though he was the Governor of the Bank of England during the week and just dressed up in surplice and cassock on Sundays, would hold forth discreetly on a little highbrow theology and then allow his cultured choir to sing several of the more sophisticated hymns in their repertoire.  With those regulation formalities of the mass accorded their due time slot, he would follow up with plenty of businesslike discourse on how improved the church, and the manse, would look with yet another designer-aisle or other appropriate addition and enlargement.  Then he would stress how God and he, as usual absolutely unanimous in these matters, expected all their well-heeled parishioners to be prompt and generous in contributing to its financing.  And so it was.  And so it became.  And not much later, as was to be expected with all that immaculate new stonework and all those expensive and glistening Humbers, Jaguars and Wolseleys outside, Father Booker became Canon Booker.

Going to mass at Wanstead, instead of to the big, gloomy, musty church attached to our school in Ilford, ensured that none of my school teachers was likely to be among the congregation and, therefore, there was little chance of my receiving lectured disapproval for not attending one of the early morning services.  Also, at Wanstead, my similarly easy living brother and I could invariably arrive quite late and leave quite early thus cutting down on the tedium of the lengthy service.  Canon Booker didn’t seem to mind our sudden disappearances after the general blessing.  He probably suspected that our contribution to the church building fund, if any, would hardly compensate for our somewhat off-putting presence in the parking lot gawking at the limousines as they floated off smoothly and importantly from the hallowed grounds.
Walking to and from Wanstead church meant a mile or more of wending our way through the housing estates’ well-kept, modern homes, then down a leafy lane to a footbridge over the River Roding. 
Then we followed a path running beside the river, which was full of sticklebacks and other small fish and frogs for my interest, while on the other side of the path, for my older brother’s interest, it passed a large group of tennis courts full of bouncing, leggy, young ladies in very short, frilly tennis skirts.  Then we passed up into part of the old Wanstead village.

Along the way was a strange, very small shop owned by a wizened little old lady left over from mid-Victorian times, or even earlier.  Through a small display window of thick bubbled glass containing a most weird collection of curious items, the interior of the dark shop hinted at secreting even more eerie oddments inside.  Among those bizarre novelties I remember most clearly several bowls filled with glass eyes of varying sizes and colours.  Probably wounded veterans of the Crimean war, or maybe even older pensioned-off sea pirates, contemplating discarding the black eye-patch covering an empty socket, had once riffled and fingered through those ancient bowls looking for a comfortable colour match for their one remaining organ of sight.  
But dimly, upon repeatedly clicking on my brain’s Search and Find option, I can conjure up half-hidden memories of other oddments in that little shop.  Malevolent and ugly Punch-and-Judy puppets, intricate handmade and hand-painted toys made of wood and tin, a horse-coachman’s whip and post-horn, roughly carved false hands and hooks, and children’s tops that when spun at a certain speed spelled out a special word of endearment or curse.  And surely it was there that I saw a dressmaker’s busty and panty-waisted dummy figure.  It was an old and rare dummy, complete with a dummy head and face. And incongruously, in that place of all places—a dummy with one eye missing!
The several times my older brother took me inside that musty place (Sunday shopping in the thirties), the old lady with her ancient, spiralled tin hearing-trumpet and her close-up intense scrutiny of my face, plus the odour of darkness and antiquity, all combined to unnerve me.  So much so that I was quite happy for once to get to Canon Booker’s no-nonsense, matter-of-fact, easy on the incense, bright and airy, modern-day house of worship to which he graciously bestowed residential privileges to his well-behaved and sophisticated God.

To me, this was all in pleasant contrast to SS Peter & Paul’s sombre church where God measured about four acres in extent and hovered like a dense storm cloud just ten feet above the massive, cavernous, roof.  Actually, this murky cloud was pierced, a little way to the westward, and for older worshippers only, by one bright hundred-foot-square hole.  This hole in the thick cloud allowed some rays of sunshine to fall in on a hall where the gallant Knights of Columbus had a cosy private pub. 
 There, after the ten o’clock mass they had just attended, those churchgoers so inclined could have a beer or whisky even before the half-past-eleven mass had commenced.  Not too many dismal Presbyterian faces in there.
  In this large church, old Canon Palmer, all craggy features, thick spiky eyebrows covering lurking piercing eyes, was the undisputed pious and revered leader.  Old enough to be the slightly younger brother of the ancient Victorian lady in the shop at Wanstead, Canon Palmer had already been sainted by most of his vast congregation.  His church was packed to overflowing and standing-room-only five times every Sunday morning and twice in the evening, as well as several times during the week.  His choir alone appeared to equal the total attendance of one of Wanstead Canon Booker’s early low mass congregations. They were certainly much noisier.
Of course this observation is hearsay on my part.  I never went to early low mass at Wanstead.  Always late High Mass.  When I performed my obligatory once-a-year early morning communion, I wanted to gain full credit for it in the eyes of my teachers.  So suitably pious, I went to SS. Peter & Paul’s that one Sunday in the year I was forced to fulfil my mandatory Catholic obligation.
It proved to be just about the end of my future church going.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Important Notice:
There are roughly (at times very roughly) six point something billion (6,???,???,??? billion) human beings living on planet Earth.
Though usually known by the madding crowd as ‘people’ these organisms were always known and classified, in the Royal Navy, simply as ‘ratings’.
This is the terminology used in this educational UFOugh offering...   

A Ramble along the Rocky Planetary Road 
to Alien Ratings

Recent astronomical observations disclosing the existence of a hitherto unknown multitude of earth-sized planets — many of them probably of a rocky composition — could well mean our contemporary blinkered world philosophy is on the verge of gaining fresh insight into the real nature of our solar system and the incredibly modest part it plays amid the actual mechanisms of universal existence.
Because the tantalizing possibility of there being other forms of life, distinct from our own terrestrial array, is now strengthened and appears to be obvious.

This will surely mean that all the ludicrous fictional ju-ju religious beliefs manufactured and practised by mystics, charlatans, propagandists, witch doctors, and other such artists throughout the many past millenniums since the dawn of history, and still amazingly noisily embraced either rampantly or softly muted, and still so pervasive even today, will soon be so discredited as to lead to their final blessed demise. 

Already there are indications by the more rational segments of society to entertain sober considerations of the seemingly increasingly reality of the hard core of facts in UFO sightings.  
This despite the continuation of dispassionate witnesses and moderate advocates being mocked by the majority of earthlings who are as yet still intellectually paralysed by the fairy tales indoctrinated into them from infancy by their elders, who were themselves, either gently or severely, mentally misled in similar fashion when children.
There is also derision from otherwise rational and educated people burdened with excessive ingrained codes of credence for reasons of blurry conformity.  They cannot visualize meeting alien ratings of similar intelligence to themselves.
Yet there is no reason to expect that our first contact with other vastly differently-evolved advanced life forms will compare in any understandable degree to our own uniquely developed but limited intelligence.

At last it appears, some earthly national governments are investigating the facts, tenuous as they are, and realizing that all the prosaic airline and military aircrew who have publicly recorded actual sightings (plus many more who do not, for fear of ridicule and potential harm to their careers) and also the scads of reports by other responsible ratings, and groups of ratings, could indicate that there actually may well be unknown super-intelligent ratings poking about inside our solar system’s boundaries.  
It’s all made out to be rather dopey by stories about little green men or beings with big heads, bulging eyes and other animal grotesqueness but basically built (as we’re so instructed by our own somehow superior religionist shipmates modestly clad in their long flowing gowns and funny head-dresses) in the likeness of our own particular genetic chief rating — usually known as God.
Even reputable science publications and organizations steer well clear of making plain comment in favour or against giving credence to the controversy — because of the possibility of further evidence unfolding either way in the near future. 
Surely more credence must be given to reports by clear-headed practical aviators than the fuzzy scary appearances, as related in religious fable, by feather-winged angels, playing trumpets, to ju-ju-believing shepherds of suspect reasoning powers.

But today, despite the automatic pooh-poohing by so many of our otherwise laudable senior leadership ratings, there is more likely evidence for the existence of intelligent other-world life forms, and thus a rational belief that those such ratings plausibly possess better forms of interplanetary travel than do we poor ratings who still have trouble designing even a decent and reliable toenail clipper.   
In fact, the evidence for the probability of existence of aliens who possess a capability for cosmic travel is much stronger than there is, or ever has been, for believing in the existence of any of the welter of gods generated through fanciful human imaginings over the past several thousands of years.  

The Vatican’s chief astronomer, one José Funes, when asked by the New Scientist magazine’s Eugenie Samuel Reich if religion affected his research agenda, replied that he had discussed the matter with the Pope and received complete freedom for research and so his astronomers studied planetary science, clusters of galaxies, cosmology, and the big bang — all of which seem quite appropriate subjects for any astronomer.
He also averred not to see any religious implications for Catholic theology by possible discoveries of extraterrestrial life.   So that’s all right then.  Full steam ahead.
(But on this point it now seems likely that Britain’s famed Second-World-War Prime Minister and the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, disagreed with the modern view held by the Vatican’s José Funes and the Pope.  Because evidently our W.W.II allied leaders banned the, newly-disclosed, RAF report of a soberly believable wartime UFO encounter, partly because they considered it would degrade the religious beliefs of the allied civilian population).

There is no earthly or cosmic reason to suspect that any of the ratings we may contact from other planets would appear or share similar characteristics with the assembly-line look-alike appearance as do most of we ratings here gathered together on planet Earth.  You know the type (just take a look in the bathroom mirror) — all we ratings with a wonky round head stuck atop a body full of gurgling fleshy plumbing apparatus, an arm thing sticking out on both sides and two legs poking out underneath.  (Yeah, plus motley other bits and pieces which we needn’t get into just now.  We’ve had enough trouble with those on our own planet).

With aliens having their own particular brands of chemistry, physics, brewing techniques and favourite comestibles it is highly unlikely that they would look, behave, or think anything remotely akin to that which we good and true ratings here ensconced on Earth consider normal.  And if they are a bit loopy and partial to cogitating about supreme beings they probably have their own distinctly godly ideas and views.  

So all in all, intriguingly, with new scientific observations confirming a plethora of planets of differing masses and gravity in orbit around a variety of stars, double stars, and even multiple stars, the likelihood of their harbouring very strange other life forms is increasingly to be expected.

Of course, what would suddenly bring some of us up standing with a sharp round turn (and simultaneously vindicate others) at such a first meeting with intelligent alien life ratings, on a planet millions of light years away from earth, would be if the ratings inhabiting the place were found to be deeply religious and at once marched our first visiting astronauts off before their Pope, senior Imam, Rabbi or Buddha to be forcibly converted, confirmed or otherwise processed — thus unexpectedly proving that the hitherto completely imaginary existence of all our traditional earthly Gods is indeed part of a cosmic reality.

A very interesting note:

The first absolutely creditable and believable witness to record a UFO sighting — eighty years ago.

An excerpt about Sir Frances Chichester:

In 1940, as a fourteen-year-old mailroom office boy, my several daily trips around a scientific instrument factory  were full of interest.  There was the echo-sounder shop, the sextant shop, the compass shop and shops where Ralston Stability and Trim Indicators, binnacles, Kent Clear-View Screens, navigational dividers, telescopes, binoculars and many other aids and instruments of marine and aerial navigation were made and tested.  One mail stop of special interest was an electrical shop set-apart in some secrecy which was devoted to the research and production of the first radar sets.
 But, even this paled in interest against my second port of call.  Because this stop on my never changing internal mail route, at times with live episodes of the Battle of Britain taking place in the blue skies overhead, always took me into the office of the adviser on navigational design matters.  
The room contained his secretary’s desk, his own large desk, and always several navigational sextants, both marine and aeronautical bubble, and fascinating wooden models of devices in the design stage, together with other oddments of intriguing appearance.  And around the walls were shelves of books on aviation matters, maps, and many pictures of aeroplanes, predominant among them photographs of a de Havilland Gipsy Moth.  It was just as well that he, who occupied this office, was nearly my first client as his copious mail was often heavy with books and copies of wonderful, though somewhat expensive, glossy magazines.  The Aeroplane, Flight, The Aeroplane Spotter  and other technical and general-interest publications on aviation made his slot in my mail carrier bulge to full capacity. 
 Though already well known and respected in aeronautical circles for his epic feats of navigation in flying his light aeroplane between England and Australia and New Zealand, at that time, during the early years of the war, this gentleman whose office so delighted me each working day was, to me, just that — an extremely interesting, and kindly, gentleman.  This especially because, when he saw how absorbed I was in his photographs and magazines, he not only took to passing on to me some of those books and magazines, but even at times asked his secretary to pour me a cup of tea and give me a biscuit from his managerial tea tray.  His name many years later became a household word in Britain and other parts of the world for his record-breaking and adventurous, around-the-world, solo ocean voyages in his yacht, Gipsy Moth IV.  He was also knighted by the Queen and became Sir Francis Chichester.
At that time, when I was confiding in him my ambition to become a fighter pilot, I did not know that he himself was busily bombarding the Air Ministry and Royal Air Force with applications to get a wartime flying job.  Yet with all his valuable experience, he was refused time after time.  Eventually, I believe his expertise was acknowledged by an appropriate appointment at the Air Ministry.

But of most importance, Chichester was probably the first absolutely creditable and believable witness to publicly record a UFO sighting, though at the time the term was unknown.  In one of his books, I think it is Return to Australia,  he recorded that in the middle of his remarkable and epic feat of air navigation in flying from New Zealand to Australia, in 1931, he saw:        
 Suddenly, ahead and thirty degrees to the left, there were bright flashes in several places, like the dazzle of a heliograph.
  I saw a dull grey-white airship coming towards me.  It seemed impossible, but I would have sworn that it was an airship, nosing towards me like an oblong pearl.  Except for a cloud or two there was nothing else in the sky.  I looked around, sometimes catching a flash or a glint, and turning again to look at the airship I found that it had disappeared.  I screwed up my eyes, unable to believe them, and twisted the seaplane this way and that way, thinking that the airship must be hidden by a blind spot.  Dazzling flashes continued in four or five different places, but I still could not pick out any planes.  Then, out of some clouds to my right front, I saw another, or the same, airship advancing.  I watched it intently, determined not to look away for a second: I'd see what happened to this one, if I had to chase it.  It drew steadily closer, until perhaps a mile away, when suddenly it vanished.  Then it appeared, close to where it had vanished: I watched with angry intentness.  It drew closer, and I could see the dull gleam of light on its nose and back.  It came on, but instead of increasing in size, it diminished as it approached.  When quite near, it suddenly became its own ghost--one second I could see through it, and the next it had vanished.  I decided that it could only be a diminutive cloud, perfectly shaped like an airship and then dissolving, but it was uncanny that it should exactly resume the same shape after it had once vanished.  I turned towards the flashes, but those too, had vanished.

1960 report:

Squadron-Leader Gordon Burgess, whose RAF service dated from 1940, reports that in 1960 he was flying a Shackleton long-range maritime patrol aircraft with twelve people aboard, from Cyprus to Malta.
During two hours of morning daylight, beginning in the vicinity of Crete, a cylindrical-shaped metallic-appearing object, with red illumination at its forward end took up position on the Shackleton’s port side and followed its every movement for two hours.
After reporting this sighting two RAF Javelin fighters flew out to meet the Shackleton and their pilots also confirmed the object’s presence just before it suddenly disappeared skywards at extreme speed where at 60,000 feet it was lost to Malta radar.
All concerned reported what they had seen and the incident became an Official Secret.

Recent News item that’s causing a flurry of speculation...
Winston Churchill was accused of ordering a coverup of an encounter between a UFO and an RAF aircraft in the Second World War because he feared a "panic" and a loss of faith in religion, state newly-released secret files.
The claim is contained in files on UFOs declassified today by the National Archives. The files, covering 1995 to 2003, are made up of more than 5,000 pages of reports, letters and drawings.
The allegations involving Churchill were made by the grandson of one his personal bodyguards, who wrote to the Ministry of Defence in 1999 inquiring about the incident after he learned of the details.
According to the letters, a reconnaissance aircraft was returning from a mission when it was shadowed by a metallic UFO near the coast of England, possibly over Cumbria. Its crew photographed the object, which they said "hovered noiselessly" near the aircraft.
The writer, a physicist from Leicester, claimed that his grandfather, an RAF officer, overheard Churchill talking to Eisenhower about the incident.
During the meeting, a weapons expert dismissed suggestions the object was a missile because the event was "totally beyond any imagined capabilities of the time." Another person raised the possibility of a UFO, at which point Churchill ordered the report to be classified.
"There was a general inability for either side to match a plausible account to these observations, and this caused a high degree of concern," wrote the physicist.
"Mr. Churchill is reported to have made a declaration to the effect, 'This event should be immediately classified since it would create mass panic among the general population and destroy one’s belief in the church.

Is this where the views of the Pope and his chief astronomer, which contradict those held by Winston Churchill and Supreme Commander General Eisenhower in World War Two, are answered?  (I wonder if they asked generals Montgomery and de Gaulle for their views at the time)

Here's another little peanut of a squib
Following four years of Arctic exploration from Hudson Bay to Eureka, at eighty degrees north latitude, 1958 was for me another active year, during which as a Canadian advisor I spent many weeks aboard the United States Coast Guard Cutter Bramble, engaged on charting the waters of Baffin Bay between northern Baffin Island and western Greenland, followed by weeks aboard HMCS Nootka running Decca Navigational tracks between the Atlantic and Quebec City.
But those duties followed an earlier two-month period as the senior assistant to D’Arcy Charles who was in charge of the large new Canadian Hydrographic Service research icebreaker, CGS Baffin, employed in charting the extensive waters of Cyrus Field Bay off southeastern Baffin Island and around Monumental Island.
During this earlier part of the season I spent periods in charge of two shore parties erecting temporary Decca transmission masts on two widely separated and isolated islands at the southern end of Cyrus Field Bay.
One of these shore excursions included the only time I was to be touched by the mysticism of the arctic loneliness.  
If I was asked right now, after the passage of a half century of time, I would be hard pressed to pinpoint the exact location of which I speak—even though I made several astronomical  observations to fix its position at the time (we had no GPS or computers then).  Now it would require a complicated, and cooperative, delving into old records buried somewhere in Canadian Government storage rooms to locate its position.  Years ago I did search for for the location on aerial photographs to no avail.  
Anyway, like an unbeliever who sees a ghostly, inexplicable occurrence, or I imagine, a dyed-in-the-wool scoffer who himself sights strange flying objects, which to my chagrin I never experienced, I would prefer to keep it all a private memory.  Something special to myself.  Something to mull over in quiet moments.  Because, it is still hauntingly, familiar in my mind:  
The whole beautiful scene that was displayed that evening I strolled through a deeply-coloured arctic landscape along an Arctic shoreline.  Maybe, it was nothing.  Or perhaps everything in its implications?  One thing is certain.  It was no passing, momentary thing.  If it was then, then it is now.  And can still be confirmed by other eyes.  Unless...
Let me try to describe what I experienced.

It was during a late evening with a most strangely purple-coloured sky.  After supper I decided to leave the hut and my five or six semi-marooned companions and stroll along the island’s northern shoreline.  All was still and quiet.  The sun was low down in the north with the greater part of its orb below the horizon. The varying hues and tones of purple touched the sea, the beach and the bare, rocky inland hills.  Not even the smallest wavelets washed the beach.  The sea was mirror calm, a tranquil palette of colours from the deep blue end of the spectrum.  The only sound in the desolate landscape was the constant wild calling of a pair of arctic loons on a small lake nearby.  The only other sign of wildlife I encountered was the massive hulk of a dead walrus lying on the high-water line.  There was no smell, death had been very recent and the large tusks gleamed their own sheen of purple.
Half a mile further on I turned a bend in the coast and was brought to an abrupt halt by the scene before me.  Along the gentle slope of the bare rock-face, stretching up from the shingle beach and reaching inland as far as I could see, was a wide, flat, level scar.  Straight as it was, at right-angles to the shore and about two hundred feet wide, it appeared to extend inland for thousands of feet to where the hills rose up from the plain.  Startled to be suddenly standing on the edge of such a harsh and definite geometric feature after wandering for so long amid the natural randomness of the regional geography, I could not at first grasp its reality.  My first bewildered thought was wonderment at why anyone had decided to build an airport runway in that remote place.  And left it uncompleted!  At once I dismissed such a ridiculous notion.  No wartime or peacetime use could have been made for an airfield in that remote area.  And surely the cutting of the feature before me would have entailed an impossible amount of equipment and blasting operations at astronomical expense.  Therefore, what was it?  A geological formation?  Could an ancient sheering movement of rock against rock leave such a spectacular fault? 
I could not credit it.  And also it seemed, the deep purple colour of the exposed vertical rock faces which formed the sides of the scar appeared on a closer look to be scorched.
By what?
What was I thinking of?
No meteorite would leave such a scar.  A crater, yes.  But not a survey-straight dimensional scar.
Where did that leave my capacity for rationalization?
Bemused, I sat on the edge of the scar, quietly smoking my pipe for some time in the low light of that late summer arctic night.
Finally I roused up, took one final look around to prove to myself I was not dreaming, then slowly wended my way the couple of miles back along the shore to the huts.  The next day I was picked up by one of the Baffin’s six launches on the other side of the peninsula and within days I was far distant from that strange place.
For me, it remains my only unsolved arctic mystery.

Of course now, I curse my foolishness, not only in this event but many others over those Arctic years for not always carrying a camera with me.  The small number of black and white photographs I did take were mostly of the fish I caught, boats and ships.  Many were used in magazine stories I wrote.  But the old folding camera that I used, purchased in Iraq years before, was inconvenient to carry and use.  But before leaving Ottawa that particular year, 1958, I had bought one of the first compact 35 mm reflex cameras, an Asahiflex.  Some of the Kodachrome slides I took with it appeared in the Canadian Geographic Magazine and elsewhere.

But even with all the other cameras I’ve owned since then not in one single instance did I get the chance to photograph a UFOugh.
It’s a mystery.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Guiding the big guns on target

Simulations for the attack on Japan

On foul weather days when we were socked in as regards flying our squadron’s Seafire XV fighters we had various training aids to keep us busy.  The most notable and best enjoyed was the Operational Crew Trainer.  This elaborate contraption took up a sizeable amount of space in a large darkened building.  Its purpose, already somewhat outdated in 1945 though probably still ready for operational use in the forthcoming final assault on Japan, was to teach us to direct the guns of large warships onto their targets.  
Of course, by this time most of the world's great battleships had been sunk by attacking aircraft, but we carried on in proper naval tradition.
  Two of us at a time, one to act as pilot the other as observer, would climb up into a mock model of an aeroplane and, as the lights dimmed right down, instrument dashboard lights would glow, the aircraft would come to pulsating life, earphones would hum and curtains would draw back to reveal, down below and seemingly ahead a couple of miles, the vista of a shadowy coastline as viewed by moonlight from about a 3,000-foot altitude.  By using his controls, the pilot could turn the aircraft and fly along the coast in either direction with harbours, towns and villages, rivers, inlets, railway lines and stations, woodlands, hills and factories all passing by in realistic fashion and appearance.
The observer would receive information and instructions regarding the selected target, perhaps a railway marshalling yard or dockyard.  Then the code word ‘Flash’ (the guns have fired) would come over the headset followed by a varying number, ‘seventeen’ (meaning the warship’s high-explosive shells will land near the target in seventeen seconds time).  And sure enough in seventeen seconds the shells would burst with a small flash of light down below.  Perhaps a fountain of water would rise up if the shells missed short and fell into the sea or a river, or several trees rise up and fall down if the salvo fell in the woods, or perhaps buildings in a nearby town would be seen to topple.  
As the pilot turned the aircraft to pass by that part of the coast again, the observer would be radioing the compass bearings and distances off of the shooting errors back to the ship. 
 Then again we would hear: ‘Flash, seventeen’ (or sixteen or eighteen) and the game would go on until the target was hit.  The realism was amazing.  After a few minutes of turning this way and that in the dim, muted light, the murky illusion of actually flying became very real.
After many sessions, we were allowed to see the trainer's workings.  The aircraft was mounted on a stationary pedestal, but could be turned through 360 degrees.  The mock-up coastline and inland topography was a vast relief model resting on a thirty-foot-diameter turntable, which had its turning speed synchronized in ratio with the aircraft's heading and indicated airspeed.  
The relief model itself was a mass of little pegs which when activated by electrical impulse would rise up differing fractions of an inch accompanied by a flash of light.  These pegs underpinned tiny model houses, trees, locomotives, factory chimneys and other fragments of infrastructure and landscape, some of them hinged so they could topple over in lifelike fashion.
Underneath the turntable was a bewildering spaghetti-like mass of electrical wires and tiny electric bulbs of varying intensity.  Through a wonderful system of relays and switches, the controller, hidden away in her hidden cubicle, could select appropriate pegs to rise up sharply with a burst of light and then sink back more slowly into their recesses.  All this long before transistors or computers appeared.
We loved playing this game.  Especially Goff Parker.  His Wren girlfriend, Mary, who was one of several who shared many of our evenings in the lounge of the nearby Ugadale Hotel, was one of the trainer's controllers.  At war's end they were married and I expect carried on playing similar such games by moonlight happily ever after.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Manned Mars Lander to be strawberry free

Helping to filter out any strawberry-obsessed Captain Queegs

(Explanation:   Captain Queeg was Politzer Prize winning author Herman Wouk’s fictional US Navy officer whose erratic mental instability as commander of the destroyer-minesweeper USS Caine culminated in his paranoid belief that one of his officers was stealing spoonfuls of his personal supply of preserved strawberries.  This best seller book, The Caine Mutiny, also became several Broadway plays, and in 1954 appeared as an excellent film with Humphrey Bogart in the title role). 

An international team of six researchers in Russia are spending 520 days (that’s one whole  year and five months) locked into artificial spaceship quarters as an isolated company to mimic the expected psychological effects during proposed interplanetary travels to Mars and back.

Having experienced two uninterrupted small ship voyages lasting 180 days (six months) in duration myself, plus many other months-long trips on other ships, all added to my 1,500 or more or less sustained days and nights in charge of a small vessel manned only by myself and a crew of twenty Iraqis plying the waters of the Persian Gulf, all probably totalling the equal of one return trip to Mars, perhaps gives me provenance to make comment.

Here is one little drama I observed while sailing in lonely northern waters.
After a few weeks, as our chartered sealer lay at anchor off the northwest uninhabited  coast of Hudson Bay, it was plain to me that Vic Goodwill, our chief of party, was annoyed by something occurring daily in the vessel’s small dining room.  As the hydrographers mess table  and the Theron  officers table were separated by half-a-dozen feet I knew there was no friction there.  At meals, Vic and I faced each other at the head of the long table.  Vic, somewhat pudgy and rather a landlubber, was a meticulous engineer seemingly somewhat out of place in a  working vessel.  His passions were: strawberry-flavoured (oh-oh!) ice-cream; his strawberry-coloured Studebaker sports car; and his constantly meticulous diary keeping — which I would be very interested in reading these sixty years later on.  He was an exceedingly keen and knowledgeable bird watcher (which rubbed off on me and for which I must thank him) in connection with which hobby he recorded hundreds of feet of 16 mm movie film .  He was also a teetotaller. 
   Mindful of Vic’s edginess at the dining table, one day when I was in Vic’s office-cabin, I asked him if he would like me to shift further along the mess table.  Oh, no! he replied.  Not at all.  It was the fellow next to me he couldn’t stand.  His face reddened a little. Not that there was anything wrong with him in general, he said.  Vic’s face reddened a little more, became almost strawberry tinted.  It was just that the chap next to me insisted on spreading butter over his bread again and again and again and again even when it had already been thoroughly and evenly spread the first time, the second time, the third, the fourth, the umpteenth time.  By now Vic’s face was almost livid.  Why did he do it, Vic asked.  Again and again and again—right through the length of the meal.  Kept spreading it like this and this, Vic’s hearing aid dropped from his ear and dangled by its cord as his hands went through repeated precise and decisive butter-spreading motions, again and again.  Then Vic shook his head, regained his composure, put his hearing aid back in and muttered something about it all being a joke.
I went and confided to my trusty sidekick, Barrie Macdonald.  Between us we engineered some excuse to move the butter spreader to the far end of the table on Vic’s side so he was unseen by our party chief.   
From then on all went well.  
  Vic’s other passion apart from wild bird life was Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce which he would sprinkle liberally on his several pieces of buttered bread at every meal time.  He would also remark, three times a day, week after week, that he rather liked the taste of that particular sauce.  Though facing him across the narrow mess table this long-lasting savoury obsession of his and his oft repeated daily, weekly, monthly, soliloquy regarding it’s desirability left me quite unaffected.  Happily, I use it very often even to this day.  Honest.  
Luckily, NASA take note, the MV Theron carried a goodly supply of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce.
  As well as butter.

It was unfortunate, or maybe fortunate, that as an arctic-bound vessel the MV Theron  was classified by the customs office as a foreign going vessel and therefore allowed duty-free alcoholic supplies.  Though such privileges did not come into legal effect until the ship had reached Cape Chidley at the northern extremity of Labrador.  Yet we were often stuck half way up the coast by heavy ice formations for weeks on end.  So whether that particular legal stipulation was strictly adhered to by all our ship’s officers I’m not quite sure.  But it certainly applied to we six law-abiding hydrographers, even ones like me who happened to be friendly with the chief engineer whose cabin was right next to mine.  Well, at least mostly.  I’m pretty sure about that.
As far as I can remember...

Friday, May 28, 2010

How to see in the dark

Learning the sideways look

When we arrived at HMS Macaw, the Royal Navy night vision training establishment at Bootle, in what was then Cumberland in northwest England, we were at once treated to a very effective demonstration.  
As our group of two dozen pilots stood outside the main building in the bright early summer sunshine in 1945, we were each handed a pair of what appeared to be welders goggles of extreme obscurity.  After putting these darkened goggles on, we could hardly see each other.  Only dimly could we make out the division between earth and sky despite the sunny day.  Then we were told to remove our goggles and one pair, chosen at random, was given to one of the institution’s Women's Royal Navy staff officers.  After she put them on a box of matches was scattered on the ground.  With no hesitation or fumbling she bent down and picked them all up one by one.  
We were amazed.  But we were warned that by the end of the course we would certainly not have that Wren's expert proficiency, but that we would be able to see in the dark much better than we could before.  
And it was true.  We could.  It worked. 
For the next two or three weeks we spent at that school, we had a routine of every day being a hardworking play day.  After one full day of lectures concerning the elements of night vision, the physical make-up of the human eye and the role played by the eyes' so-called rods and cones, we went straight into the serious daily business of playing day-long games.
Every morning before sunrise, we were woken by a loud buzzer in all the rooms.  This was the signal for everybody to reach out for a set of white-light opaque goggles and put them on.  Then it was back to sleep until still begoggled we went to begoggled breakfast, followed by begoggled teeth brushing and all the other little duties of the morning.  Then a typical play-day would take us into a completely blacked-out hangar illuminated only by dim red lights or alternatively artificial lights that could simulate various degrees of starlight or faint moonlight.  Once everybody was in, we removed our goggles and the fun began.
One game we played in the dark was negotiating an elaborate obstacle course marked out with white painted objects and trip wires.  Though at first we could only feel our way along in slow motion to avoid the traps and bumping into our fellow students, we soon improved to a slow walk, then a walk, then a jog and eventually we raced against each other on bicycles.  We also played soccer and basketball with white-painted balls.  Another more punishing game employed a circle of large diameter drawn in white on the hangar floor.  We stood on the perimeter of this circle facing inwards to where a heavy white medicine ball was suspended from the high hangar roof.  When given sufficient impetus to swing like a pendulum, the ball's silent travel was diabolically about nose high when it reached our positions on the circle.  Thus it was in the student's significant interest to keep a keen lookout at all times as the ball could arrive from any of about 160 degrees of direction-very suddenly.  Naturally in such a situation, we kept our hands up in a defensive position at all times in order to try and catch the ball and push it away into the darkness towards another of our unseen colleagues.  But occasionally the ball would swing in and penetrate these defences and result in a rare bloody nose.
So by learning to be conscious of seeing with our eyes’ offset eye rods, by looking about twenty degrees to one side of any discerned object and strictly shielding the eyes from any bleaching white light, we hoped to improve our ability to be triumphant in darkened battle — even against the suicidal native sons of the benighted rising sun nation itself.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Staying on the level in India

A Street Person of Bombay

In January 1953, I was employed to make a detailed hydrographic chart of Bombay harbour in India.  I flew out by Air India in company with two civil engineers and a land surveyor.
 As our plane approached Bombay some type of official landing declaration forms were handed out to be filled in by the passengers.  As George Macdonald, the land surveyor, and I were licking our pencils at this task one of the most  graceful of the Indian female flight attendants —there was absolutely no doubt about her delicious gender—came over, looked at our forms, then said: “What are you doing? These forms are not for you, they’re only for foreign people".  And she tore them up.  
It was, and still is, one of the nicest things ever said to me.
January or not, as we stepped down from the aircraft tropical warmth enveloped us.  We gathered our many boxes of instruments and other equipment and drove to the army officers’ mess at Colaba at the tip of the Bombay peninsula.  There we were each apportioned a venerable and spacious room and bath in shaded and peaceful quarters still steeped in the ambience of the lately departed Imperial Raj.
My job, to produce a hydrographic chart or, in this case, a hydrographic engineering plan, meant I had to show all the shoreline features in relation to the varying harbour depths running out to the deep water in the middle of the harbour.
Prominent features included Mazagon Dock, Ocean Pier, the Gateway to India monument, a nuclear research station, an Indian naval establishment and several busy city streets teeming with an exceedingly high-density population.

The proposed engineering work was to take several years to complete.  As much of it was for the benefit of the Indian navy I was happy to get their full co-operation and the use of their facilities and workshops to carry out my marine survey.  George Macdonald was busy verifying the topographical features and triangulation network on shore and as our jurisdictions met and overlapped at the shoreline, we worked together when required.
As a work party I was given a very mixed bunch of a score or more dock workers, consisting of pairs of men who all seemed to speak a different language from the rest of the gang though one of each pair could speak the language of one, and only one, of the other pairs.  If this sounds complicated that’s because it was.  So when we were at work and I wanted a man several hundred feet away holding a level staff to go uphill a little I had first to tell my assistant in English who told another in Hindi, who told another in Gujerati, who told another in Urdu, who told another in Madrasi who told another in another tongue who told the guy with the level staff who instead of going a little higher went downhill a little.  Or a lot.  Or even disappeared over the horizon.  I soon found it easier to take the time to instruct all the staff holders in the hand and arm signals used by many surveyors.
At first I was allotted a young naval officer to act as my first assistant.  Though he was very nice, even debonair, and socially very delightful as a proper naval officer should be, he was rather lacking in any technical ways and was quite opposed to picking anything up or being associated with any of my multi-lingual motley crew of brigands.  He was quite relieved after a couple of days when I told the authorities that as he had now taught me all he knew I hoped I could flounder along without his continued help.
In his place I secured Able Seaman Albert.  AB Albert was dressed in square rig and was a godsend.  Very dark complexioned and short in stature he came from the southern tip of India.  He described himself as being LMS.  This was nothing to do with the London, Midland and Scottish railway company in Britain (whose towels, serviettes and even blankets, because of being adorned with the initials LMS, were reputed to be stolen by dishonest neo-bridegrooms who presented them to their fiancees telling them that LMS stood for Love Me Sweetheart) but meant he had been brainwashed for better or for worse by the London Missionary Society.  Willing and able as his title required him to be, AB Albert was also quick and intelligent.  He confessed to me one day that during the swell of nationalistic fervour in 1947 he was in a cruiser when the crew mutinied.  He said he was helpless and had to passively take part in the mutiny or be chucked over the side by his shipmates.  In one day I taught AB Albert to use the level instrument and keep a levelling book of notations so accurate that I would often, as a form of relaxation, spend an hour holding the level staff for him and letting him do all the meticulous technical work.  Between us we taught some of our gang to act as rodmen which was a boon when our work took us out of the comparative quiet of the dock areas and into the bustling crowded streets of Bombay.
I decided to run a line of levels from an old established bench mark in the downtown area to an automatic tide-gauge housed in a little stone gazebo kind of structure at the water’s edge. This was probably put there a century or more before by some pukka sahibs of the Colonial Survey or the Survey of India.  But I wanted to check for myself as a lot of engineering work was to take place and the utmost accuracy was vital.
The route between the bench mark and the tide gauge wended its way down some of the busiest streets in Bombay.  And busy Bombay streets are really busy.  However, there was no other route to take and so we began our slow, leapfrogging mode of progress through the dense throngs of people.
Sixty years ago levelling involved, and probably still does, a surveyor setting up a precision instrument on a tripod to sight onto a staff graduated in hundredths of a foot and held vertically by a person called a rodman or, probably today, a rodwoman.  To start off, the instrument is set up anywhere from two feet to a couple of hundred feet distant from the bench mark.  The height of the benchmark above mean sea level has been established over many decades or centuries and its value is related to all the other bench marks in the region or country or continent.
The surveyor looks through the adjusted telescope of his level and notes down the readings bisected by the cross hairs.   This back sighting gives him the height of the cross hair in his telescope.  For example, if the value of the benchmark, as determined by the original surveyors many years ago, is 12.31 feet and the reading on the cross hair is 3.56 feet then the height of the instrument is 12.31 plus 3.56 or 15.87 feet.  When this is definitely established the rodman carries the staff past the surveyor in the direction they wish to go and finds a suitably rock-hard immovable spot upon which to place his staff.  This spot, called a turning point, can be the tip of a very large rock, the doorstep of a solid building, the edge of a curbstone, a long wooden peg driven down into soft earth or any other ground feature that will remain fixed for the near future.
When the staff man rests his rod on the chosen spot, in this case we’ll say a curbstone, the surveyor swings the telescope around and sights on the rod again, taking what is called a foresight.  If the cross hair now bisects the staff at the 4.76 reading the curbstone must have a value of 15.87 feet minus 4.76.  This gives the curb stone a height of 11.11 feet above mean sea level.  Now to carry the level value along in the direction required it is the surveyor’s turn to leapfrog the rodman by picking up the tripod and level and walking past the rodman a suitable distance further on to erect the tripod again and take another backsight on the staff to establish the new height for the instrument.  And so it goes on at intervals of anything from two or three feet to several hundred or so between set-ups of the instrument.
Well that’s all very easy to do in good weather and across flat or undulating terrain.  Not so easy across mountains or during storms.  But though Bombay cannot boast any real mountains in the downtown area and the weather was hot and sunny I at once ran into a real difficulty upon starting to run my levels.  Because Bombay has several million citizens who all appear to be very interested in the art of surveying or at least in interacting socially with the surveyor.   To try to interfere with the fewest number of good citizens as possible I made my set-ups at the curbside and told the rodmen to also use the curbstones as turning points.  As soon as I adjusted the level and applied my eye to the telescope to look at the rodman a couple of hundred feet away, about a dozen passersby at intervals between us would jostle each other in trying to look into the telescope’s other end.  So usually all I could see was a variety of dark eyes peering back at me.  Other people would try to take a turn at my end of the telescope.  This was disastrous as even a slight touch on the instrument or one of the tripod legs can alter the accuracy of the sightings and make repeat set-ups necessary.  Then there were the many unfortunates, tricksters and beggars who saw that here was a fellow trapped into making very slow progress along the street, someone who couldn’t just brush them aside and stride off to safety.  In fact they soon saw that I was temptingly quite stationary for long periods.  A sitting duck.  So during the long minutes when I was glued to the eyepiece trying to catch two-second glimpses of the staff graduations as they might briefly appear between massed bodies I would be constantly trying to free one hand to brush off unseen other hands tugging at my clothes to get my attention.  When I finally straightened up from the instrument to make a note in my level book I might have a snake charmer’s basket with its writhing occupants between my legs, a fortune teller jabbering into each of my ears,  an ear-cleaner wanting to make a contract with me to clean both those organs, and a couple of pitifully deformed beggars clutching at my feet.  
So even with able-seaman Albert at my side and with three or four of my motley work gang to help it was obvious that we were going to be a long time getting to the distant tide-gauge.
I solved the problem to a large extent in three ways.  I went to the naval authorities and arranged for my little group to be accompanied by half-a-dozen policemen to keep the line of sight fairly clear.  This worked out quite well after an initial period when instead of seeing casual passersby’s eyes looking down the wrong end of the telescope I just had policemen’s eyes looking back at me.
The second thing I did was to favour and retain around me, as a sort of personal bodyguard, the first batch of fortune tellers, snake charmers and other professionals who had accosted me that morning.  In a way this was quite brutal as poor people who have nothing are vicious to those others in a similar predicament who might horn in on their act.  Thus I now had a retinue of street people who followed me each day from level set up to level set up—a variation of the private staff members politicians and dictators have always relied upon.
Some of these people were amazingly astute and soon learned where my next approximate instrument set up would be.  I think I might well have taught several of them to actually operate the level in quite a short time.  They certainly knew enough to be waiting in the early morning at the last curbstone temporary bench mark we had marked with surveyors chalk in the late afternoon before.
The third precaution I took was to my working dress.  I now passed the little bits of money I carried for beggars and such over to Albert and for myself I wore only a pair of creased and worn short shorts and a pair of old sandals.  With the pocket linings of the shorts turned out it was obvious I had nothing of value on my person.  This ploy worked very well.  So well that on one rare occasion when we were progressing along one of the better shopping areas I caused no little embarrassment.  While waiting for AB Albert to settle some dispute with the rodman and give out a few annas to the deserving poor I wandered up the wide sidewalk to the window of a rather high-class souvenir-curio-furniture-knick-knack shop.  I was followed as usual by some of my retinue of beggars, snake charmers and fortune tellers.  As some of the stuff in the window looked interesting I went inside the shop to poke about among the items for sale.  After a few moments a tall, sophisticated and well-dressed lady came bustling up to me waving her hands and yelling in a language incomprehensible to me.  I was quite stunned at her behaviour and just stood there in open-mouthed amazement.  Then another equally gracious-looking lady came from behind the shop and also shouted at me in English to get out of her shop.  Suddenly the first lady went outside the shop and called over to a couple of my police bodyguard.  They came running into the shop, looked at me, then turned around and spoke to the first lady.  And that was when intense embarrassment overtook us all, especially me.  For, with stricken mien she at once collapsed into abject apologies in perfect English.  How could she have mistaken me for some penniless Bombay citizen sullying her nice, clean shop?  She and the other lady were in tears at their awful gaffe.  Their perceived gaffe.  I told them it was my fault.  I had unwittingly deceived them.  And I was truly penniless as could be seen by my turned-out pocket linings.  I then told them it was all a big laugh.  It was funny.  Forget it.  I just said how nice their shop was and that I’d come back with some of my friends sometime.  Then I picked up the instrument which Albert was guarding a little way up the street and followed by my retinue of street people I moved on past the shop with a wave to the two ladies.
One of the street hawkers with whom I did some small trade was the bidi  maker.  His bidis  were little cigarettes made with a strong tobacco and dark brown papers.  He rolled them custom made on the spot for his customers who bought them just one at a time.  He even licked them to stick them together for his patrons.  I made it a point that when it came to licking time he held my bidi  up to my mouth and I licked the thin strip of gum myself.  A week or two previously I had for some reason given up cigarette smoking.  This was quite unintentional on my part.  I just stopped—like giving up eating liquorice lollipops or mangel-wurzel.  I expect those few bidis  I smoked on the streets of Bombay just confirmed and extended my unintended abstinence.  Some months later when out with my father in England he stopped at a tobacconist for some pipe tobacco.  I also bought some together with a pipe and never smoked another cigarette again.
After about three days my line of levels finally tied into the tide-gauge.  There was an error of exactly one foot.  Such an exact error pointed to a simple misreading of the level staff.  But where?  There was nothing for it but to do the whole thing over again and hope we found the error sooner than later.  So praying to AB Albert’s LMS gods that I had made the error just recently rather than earlier in the run we started back from the tide-gauge using the same edges of curbstone as turning points as we had on the way in.  But I never found an error.  We arrived back at the official government benchmark and still had an error of one complete foot.  
I pondered this situation carefully.  I checked my figures for the umpteenth time.  All was well.  But all was not well.  The benchmark value was irrefutable.  Engraved in stone in every sense of the term.  It was like questioning a direct quote from Jesus to the faithful.  In fact it was even more blasphemous to question the work of the prestigious Survey of India than to question the Pope about the Virgin Birth.  Blasphemy!
So off we went again, laboriously wending our way even more slowly and carefully back over the same ground, all the way back to the tide-gauge.  And nothing changed.  An error of one foot, to within one hundredth of a foot remained to haunt me.  Had the tides of Bombay been out a foot for the past century or so?  Or had that primary benchmark’s value, recorded in the annals of the Imperial Raj, been unthinkably put down 12 inches in error?  I took the problem to George, our top-notch land surveyor.  He must have then consulted with Hamish our chief of party.  It was their problem now.  
Me, I was going to get afloat and begin my hydrographic charting.  Get in some nice restful plain sailing.  Some hope!

To be continued...

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Editorial Caution

Notice of Copyright:

No part of this missive may be retrieved either manually, electronically, or by bird-dog, carrier pigeon, or telepathy.  Nor may it be used to form pieces of a children’s jigsaw puzzle, or used as evidence in a court of law, or for enhancing political blarney during national election campaigns, or as a filler during any dreary stage appearance by famous personages at a London Palladium Royal Command Performance, or as part of a Royal Navy Petty Officers’ Sods Opera, or during  artistic scenes presented by the National Ballet of Kookkistan, or as part of a Salvation Army Training Film for Tambourine Players, or in historical documentaries applauding 21st century nouveau art, or in any other similar wise, without instant payment of enormous amounts of lolly per word or illustration.   
So there.
But apart from all the foregoing if you feel moved to use any of this stuff for legitimate or nefarious purposes, in keeping with popular and topical mores, just fill your boots while mentioning that it emanated from the Ough-Zone.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

In Old Iraq

Sindbad the Sailor and me

On various maps I’ve drawn of Iraq’s extreme southern extremities I have indicated that a mixture of local coffee-house legendary storey-telling and hydrographic-geography has it that though in 1950 the fabled Mesopotamian city of Basra was 70 miles upriver from the blue headwaters of the Persian Gulf, that back in the legendary time of Sindbad the Sailor, Basra was actually on the coast.
Such a legend is not too far fetched on consideration.  The confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are so greatly augmented by the mighty Karun sweeping down from the snow-capped mountains of Iran, that when the silt-laden spring waters of these three rivers combine to form the Shatt-al-Arab, they have, over the centuries, deposited enough suspended silt material to move the coastline 70 miles southward.  This is easy to believe by the fact that in the spring flood season, as the snows in the distant Iranian mountains melt,, 18 inches of soft mud can be laid down in the shipping channels during the course of just one single tidal cycle.
So if Sindbad the Sailor was dissolutely spending his night-time hours amid the pleasures of the Al Faribi, or even perhaps Abdullah’s place, in Basra about 1600 years ago, as has been reported, that should mean that since I left Iraq in 1952 the coastline should have migrated about (70/1600 x 58) — or around about a 2.5 miles southward. 
Looking at Google Earth and the latest Admiralty chart of the area I don’t see any really hard evidence of this.  
To verify it I’d need to somehow return to the area, find my old survey vessel, El Ghar (not too promising a search — she was built in Bombay in 1914) poke around and try to access  my old hydrographic work sheets, and then and make some updating survey observations.  
Unfortunately, I do not think I’ll have the opportunity to do so just now.  Nor, for obvious reasons, in the foreseeable future.
Anyway, after all the wars and political turmoil of the past sixty years all my twenty crew members are probably dead.  Sadly, the good old days of Iraq are over.  For now at least. 

Friday, April 16, 2010

Dundee Trawlermen

A Wonderful Night in Oban, Scotland

One autumn evening in 1952, in Oban, in western Scotland, I fell in with a couple of seafaring fellows in a pub.  They were Dundee trawlermen from the other side of Scotland.   
Their fishing vessel was tied up alongside in Oban.  When, as we spun yarns together, I told them how I had just spent the last five years living aboard my Iraqi survey vessel, El Ghar, at the northern end of the Persian Gulf, we easily accepted each other as fellow seafarers.
We yarned and chatted over several pints of beer and later went together to a dockside cafe where we met half a dozen of their shipmates.  
When I realized I had missed the only bus back to Taynuilt they said not to worry, they had a spare bunk on their trawler and would not be casting off until midmorning at the earliest.  
So I went back aboard with this happy gang and found that all hands slept in the fo'c's'le where about a dozen bunks, one atop the other, were ranged around the forward part of the ship.  In fact it was just about the same size as had been my cabin aboard my survey vessel El Ghar, of which, being in command, I had been the sole occupant, .  
Before turning into their bunks these hardy fishermen didn't remove any clothes, they put more clothes on.  Even though we were still in a warm autumn.
As we fell asleep, late that night, and later the next morning as I joined them in their simple but hearty breakfast, they recounted stories of their encounters with the deadly black ice during cold winters off Iceland and Greenland and also of the fabled characters with whom they had sailed on previous ships.  
They all laughed and contributed personal segments of a long saga concerning one particularly eccentric woman of Dundee.  It seems she was noted for her quick and prolific sandwich-making prowess.  In fact, all aboard that trawler vowed, she was the champion sandwich maker in all of Scotland.  In this capacity she was famed for growing an enormously long thumbnail on her right hand.   With this natural appendage she could scoop up just the right amount of butter and then spread it accurately and evenly over slices of bread in the briefest flash of time and without recourse to the use of any artificial tool. 

One of the older fishermen told of how when he was a child back in the 1890s his mother, every Saturday, made a batch of oatmeal porridge for her six children and husband, a batch so big, as to last them all for the coming week.  This gallon or two of porridge was poured into the top drawer of a clothes chest and left to solidify.  Then each morning the mother would open the drawer and cut a slice for each child to take to school or work for his or her lunch.
All the trawler crew agreed that herring had played an important part in their daily diet as children.  They also all agreed that they still relished herring as a favourite food.  No wonder they were all such tough trawlermen.  
No wonder, also, that the soldiers of the highly-acclaimed Scottish regiments have always given such good account of themselves in battle.  
Personally, if I were serving in an enemy army opposing such tough, white-hatted, good guys, I'd rather be facing the spam, french-fries and apple-pie eaters than ferocious oatmeal-and-herring eaters — the renowned hardy kilties of the Highland Division.